Thursday, November 15, 2012

Across the Carpathians in the Winter Night

By Tom Kando

A few years ago, I spent a winter sabbatical in Eastern Europe. I stayed there for over three months, mostly in Budapest, Hungary, researching post-communist conditions in the former satellites of the Soviet Union. My research also required me to go to adjacent countries, for example the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland. One of my side trips was to the Southern Polish city of Krakow. I knew some faculty members at the Jagiellonian University there, and I had made appointments to interview them. I decided to drive there from Budapest in the little Renault Twingo which I had rented in Vienna.

Ever since the fall of Communism, Eastern Europe has experienced a very high rate of property crime, especially car theft. Americans who travel in Europe and rent cars there are told adamantly not to drive their rentals into Eastern Europe, where they are not even insured

I had a close call on my very first day in Budapest: I had driven in from Vienna and parked my Twingo in front of the apartment building where I was to live for the next three months, and I carried my suitcase in. No sooner was I registering for my room than the clerk began to scream: “Mister, Quick! Go outside! They stealing car!”

I ran back out and chased off two men who had been scratching at my car doors’  locks with screwdrivers, and were just about to jump in. From then on, I never once left my car unsupervised. Most of the time, the car was parked in the apartment’s backyard behind a fortified security fence. I used Budapest’s excellent public transit system instead.

But now, I had no choice but to hit the road. Because of the car theft problem, I decided to do the whole Krakow trip in one day, leaving Budapest at the crack of dawn and desperately trying to get back the same day.

A graduate student from the Budapest Technical University was accompanying  me on this trip.

We left Budapest on a bright and sunny winter morning, following the blue Danube towards the northern Hungarian town of Vac, near the Slovak border. To reach Poland from Hungary you have to cross the small mountainous country of Slovakia,  and the Tatra segment of the Carpathian mountains, a range whose peaks reach nearly 9,000 feet. The road climbed steadily, and soon we were in snow country. We drove by several ski resorts. Crowds were enjoying the slopes, under a bright blue sky.

We picked up two young female hitch-hikers. They were  charming and grateful .When we dropped them off an hour later,  we were approaching the Polish border. At some point, a pit stop became unavoidable, if only to go to the bathroom. And a modest lunch also seemed awfully appealing. But what about the car? No way that we could leave it unattended. So my assistant and I decided to take separate shifts: we stopped at a chalet/restaurant and he went to the bathroom and for a snack first, while I stayed in the car. Then, vice-versa.

We managed to reach Krakow in mid-afternoon without any incidents. I got ahold of the two professors at the Jagiellonian University. However, we had the same logistical problem as with lunch:  So my poor colleague  spent three hours freezing in the Twingo while I conducted the interview.

For the return trip, we  left Krakow around  6:00 PM. I made a pit stop at a dilapidated inn on a small Polish country road. For dinner, I bought a couple of sausage sandwiches to-go, while my assistant stayed in the Twingo.

After the server gave me the sandwiches, I asked her for a glass of water. She was gracious, but she said that I couldn’t drink the water without first boiling it, so instead I bought a couple of cokes.

By 8:00 PM, we were finally driving South, out of Poland and towards Slovakia and Hungary. By now, darkness had  fully set in. Soon we crossed back into Slovakia and began to ascend the dark, desolate, curvy roads that cross the Carpathian mountains.

The drive was laborious. The snow was accumulating. The road was increasingly icy and slippery. About an hour later, we were surprised to see the same two girl hitchhikers begging for a ride, now in the opposite direction. We picked them up again and  dropped them off some thirty kilometers down the road.

I drove more and more slowly and prudently, as the road began to resemble a skating ring. Nevertheless, the inevitable happened:  In the middle of a hairpin turn, the car disobeyed my command and kept moving straight forward  towards a deep precipice. I have no idea why disaster did not strike. Probably because I was going so slowly. For whatever reason, the car came to a full stop just before falling off the cliff, and all I had to do was go into reverse.

This was the highlight of this hair-raising journey. Slowing down even more for the remainder of the trip, we reached the Hungarian plain around 3:00 AM, and Budapest at dawn. We had crossed Dracula country twice in 24 hours, and we were still alive.

Most importantly I had been spared the fate of a colleague of mine  whose rental had disappeared and who found a $30,000 charge on his  credit card on his return to the US. leave comment here